Yet a new difficulty arises. The question of what constitutes "the good life" is as old as man. What is new is that, for much of man's existence, it has been up to him, within limits, to elect to lead the good life. Today we question the quality of life, because it is perceived that deterioration is imposed upon us, since it operates on the environment in which we live.
To be sure, people do not prefer polluted rivers and air or demand jet noises or billboards as conditions of their continuing happiness. Indeed, these decisions do not ordinarily confront them. When they contract to buy a good or service, the price does not include the portion usually referred to as "social costs," i.e., costs that are imposed on society as a whole, or a given part of it, such as degradation of river water, of air, of a tract of landscape, etc. The market fails to let all who are affected participate. Participators include, beyond the buyer and the seller, others living and people yet unborn, whose lives will be affected by choices made now. The market reflects only a slice, albeit a large one, of the interests and costs involved. By excluding the social costs, it leaves them to be dealt with by different means, if at all. When they appear in a context that requires citizens to make a decision to forego other advantages and perhaps to pay directly, there is evidence that the associated price tag tends to lower the priority of the necessary remedial action. People will complain vigorously about the garbage that accumulates in public places, including those of scenic beauty, and will demand remedial action; but until they begin to perceive the ecological damage they suffer, they tend to resist more than nominal charges to alleviate the situation. Under these circumstances, the pocketbook is a fair indicator of these preferences, and that indicator throws doubt on the intensity with which people deplore various well-known blights—even in these times of deep concern about the environment. If social costs were included in the price of goods and services, those with high social costs would be less in demand and the shift in consumption patterns would lead to an enhancement of environment.
Some observers contend that preferences revealed in market behavior are not reliable guides to perception; instead, people act in certain ways because either (a) they have no option to act differently (that is, they go to crowded places because they do not have the means to go to those that are less crowded), or (b) they are uninformed or ignorant of ways to act that would lead them to treasure those aspects of life that are being appreciated by the "sensitive few," and give proper weight to societal problems. That is, were it not for market failure and insufficient information, people's preferences would reveal greater concern for quality.
Actually, little is known about preferences—how many prefer, say, rubbing shoulders as opposed to the number seeking solitude. Moreover, relevant research would have to take account of the fact that solitude, beauty, and similar intangibles are obtainable only at a cost, and a rising one. It is quite possible that a generation born and raised under conditions of crowding will